Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kindergarten Registration Moves Forward

The School Committee voted Tuesday night to tweak the existing controlled-choice policy so the lottery can be run and parents can be notified soon about which school their children will be assigned to for kindergarten in September.

The amended policy will provide enough seats and minimize the number of mandatory assignments for families who don't qualify for free or reduced lunch. This is the group that has disproportionally been wait-listed for the 10+ years I've been following school issues.

This vote is good news.

The amended policy will also provide more flexibility to move families seeking transfers in grades 1-8 off those wait-lists.

Although I was hoping for a policy that would be more responsive to the demographics of in-coming families, I realize there were outstanding questions about the first vote.

The first vote we took on a policy change would have based assignments on the demographics of families who registered in the first cycle. Although the great majority of families do register during this cycle (the month of January), this way of doing the assignments wouldn't factor in the demographics of families registering later in the year right before school opened.

What might make more sense going forward is to base the definition of balance on the demographics of the previous year's entire pool of registrants. That means the kindergarten class would be more representative of in-coming families as recently as the year prior.

The policy we voted Tuesday still bases the apportionment of seats on the demographics of the entire K-8 population. And I still think that is a problem.

Even though we added some flexibility to get by through this year, we have to look at the basis of the problem: the demographics of young families entering the school system appears to be very different than the K-8 population. (Another piece of evidence: traditionally, the majority of applicants who register for kindergarten after cycle 1 are eligible for free/reduced lunch. But already in cycle 2, this is not true; the majority are "pay" families, according to administrators who spoke on Tuesday.)

We will be discussing this policy again in the fall after school begins. It is very complex and there are a lot of divergent opinions.

But, in addition to the policy, we'll certainly be talking about another piece of the picture: schools that are not attracting a diverse pool of choices. This is a problem that has been, and can continue to be, addressed by putting in new programs to attract whichever demographic is not choosing a school.

The superintendent's idea to transform the Tobin into a Montessori school is a great example of what can be done. According to surveys done in Cambridge, this program choice was seen as attractive by both low-income and "pay" families. And, indeed, unlike the recent past at the Tobin, the Montessori drew a balance of families from both categories for its first year of operation this fall.

But it is also possible to put in smaller programs and other services to attract either middle/high income families or low-income families to existing school programs that are imbalanced in one way or another.


David Kravitz said...


Thank you for keeping us aware of the changes to the assignment process. Achieving SES balance among the schools must continue along the lines you suggest.

I want to dig more into the disconnect between the incoming SES percentages and the composite K-8 SES. What about improving SES balance on the K-through-8 continuum; that is, how can we maintain the same proportions as students are promoted from grade to grade? Do you/the ctte./FRC have figures on the ratio for each grade? Besides continual improvement, are there other programs coming to address this?

I applaud the committee for adding the additional classrooms and wish that Amigos could add another whole class, but it looks like there aren't enough Spanish-speaking children (or space in the school)?

David Kravitz

Nancy Walser said...

Thank you for your comments.

About the grade level proportions, FRC does have them and we should probably look at them again this fall when we return to this subject.

We know that net attrition out of the elementary schools occurs at a rate of about 10 percent between each grade as a class rises, so that by 12th grade, the enrollment is about half what that same class was in kindergarten. This probably impacts the proportions 1-8, but, in terms of SES, I don't know how.

The idea that there is a sudden exodus at middle school is not supported by the data that I've looked at.

There are all sort of theories about the steady attrition, the leading ones being 1.) foreign grad students going home with their children after the primary grades 2.) families moving to the 'burbs for more space as their children get older and bigger and 3.) desire to go to bigger, less diverse middle and high schools--and all that may mean.

The grade structures in the elementary schools assume this attrition will happen, so if it ever changes, we will have to adjust somehow.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the attrition rate as the word spreads about how much better the schools are doing, especially the high school. We'll have to stay on top of this.

I hope this addresses your question about maintaining proportions.

Some of the factors are clearly out of the control of the school system and relate to Cambridge's transitory population and the realities of trying to raise children in a dense and expensive city.

As for Amigos, yes, I understand there is not enough demand among Spanish speakers to open a new K class. As you know, the model is supposed to be 50-50 English and Spanish speakers. There is also a space issue about growing either school in that building.

Nancy Walser said...

Hi again,

I also meant to say that I believe the very existence of mandatory assignments deters some with the ability to move, go to private school, etc. from seriously considering Cambridge public schools.

In my mind, this is a much bigger problem than trying to influence who comes and goes in the grades above K.

Concentrating on what happens with families new to school also can greatly influence a family's experience and attitudes afterwards as their children move through the grades.

Mandatories affect those in the middle (not the very wealthy who tend to go straight to private, and not those eligible for free/reduced lunch) the most.

The message sent by mandatory assignments if they only affect one demographic, is: "they don't really want me." There's as psychological effect.

On the other hand, if the mandatories were infrequent or few, you would have the opposite effect over time -- more people seriously considering CPS.

High mandatories skew the K-8 population from the get-go and the negative effect may even last as a family move up in the grades. For example, if a family was mandatorily assigned and then something else goes wrong in 2nd grade, their tolerance for working with the school on the problem is lower. They might say, "forget this, let's just move."

So the smaller we can keep the # of mandatories at kindergarten, the better.

Some people say, this is too complex, let's go back to neighborhood schools. Given our history and our constellation of good, yet different elementary schools, this would be a mistake. Not only would the drawing of new district lines be politically difficult, if not impossible, it would also detract mightily from the real work of schools -- focusing on teaching and learning.

If we keep marketing how much diversity (in people and programming) we have in our 12 schools, choice will be seen as a strength. You might even envision the day when it won't be considered so much of a disaster if you get a mandatory assignment to a school you may not have preferred, but one that is seen as strong nevertheless.

Besides, neighborhood school districts have negative weeding-out effects that are rarely discussed: those who can afford to live near a desirable school, do; those who can't, don't get to go. End of story. In extreme cases, this leads to racial and/or socioeconomic isolation, which denies children a chance to get to know the full range of peoples and culture in their country.

The SES choice system creates a healthy tension whereby the system has to pay attention to what families want for their children within a context of community of schools; while also guaranteeing that certain quality standards i.e. curriculum frameworks) are being met in all the schools.

It's not easy, but I think it's worth working on.

Sorry to ramble so much, but I've had a decade to think about it so I thought I would share what my thinking is at this point.

Leah said...

I agree with the sentiment that the existence of the mandatory assignment and the disproportional number of paid lunch families who get it sends the message of "we don't want you."

I was stunned to read on this blog that the number of paid lunch families who would've gotten a mandatory assignment under the old lottery policy this year was 72 (that's 25% of all middle-class applicants!) compared to 1 (one!) of the free lunch families. What does that say about the way the lottery was set up?

It's nice to hear the the new policy is changing it somewhat, but, as far as I can see, it's neither permanent (what will happen in 2009?) nor very fair, either. It's still skewed towards fulfilling the preferences of the free-lunch families.

I'm all for equality, and I welcome diversity in our schools, but it's not "diversity" if it comes at someone's expense, even if that someone is more affluent or white.

And setting the kindergarten admission levels based on the K-8 enrollment seems very unfair and not very wise long-term. If the city wants to keep more middle-class families, why does it keep sending the message that our kids will always be second class here?

Nancy Walser said...

I think there are two problems -- timing and when families sign up and tying the percentage to the whole K-8 population.
We have to get greater numbers of low-income families to sign up early. And we have to tie the percentages to a more up-to-date figure -- like the proportions of folks who registered for school the previous year.
We are going to take this up again for another discussion this fall. I'll let you know the date when it's scheduled.
Nancy Walser